Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

Atropellar and Troop

Atropellar (“to knock over, to knock down” in Spanish) comes to Spanish borrowed from the French, troupe, as in, a troop of soldiers or more common these days, a comedy troop.

Although we can see the tr-p root in the English, French, and Spanish words, the question remains: how did a group turn into a knocking-over? The answer is that, large groups of rowdy drunk men almost always result in… knocking lots of people over! This is not a new concept–the word itself attests to the antiquity of drunken revelry!

Estafa and Staff

Estafa, Spanish for “to rip off” in the sense of taking advantage of someone or stealing, comes from the Italian staffa, which means “stirrup”. This change of meaning came about because it was common, back in the day, for people to borrow a horse… and then never return it.

The Italian staffa itself comes from the Proto-Indo-European root stebh, which meant “to fasten, or place firmly” from which we get the English… staff. A staff, after all, is a stick that helps you fasten something into place! At least, it used to.

From the same PIE root, we get other English words including step, stump, stamp and… Stephen.

The st-f root is visible in both estafa and staff.

Gratis and Gratify, Gratuity

Gratis (Spanish for “free,” in the sense of “free beer”, not “free speech”) is a close cousin of the English gratify and gratuitous (and its cousin gratuity).

Upon realizing this, it suddenly becomes obvious: all share the gr-t root, plus vaguely related meanings. All come from the Latin gratus, meaning, “pleasing.”

Its parallel becomes more obvious when we think of the connection of the English words to the original meaning of “pleasing”: that which is gratifying is pleasing, and you leave a gratuity when you are pleased. And gratis, free, is a reward to those who want to please others!

Alrededor and Round

The Spanish for “around”, alrededor”, comes from the same root as the English “round”: both come from the Latin rota, meaning, “wheel.”

The Spanish is a bit less obvious because of its al- prefix — which was originally a separate word, originally, “al rededor.” Thus, the r-(n)-d of round maps to the (al)-r-d of alrededor.

Libra and Deliberate and Equilibrium

The Spanish libra (“pound”) comes from the same Latin word word, libra, meaning, “pound; balance.”

From that root, we get the English: equilibrium (literally, an “equal balance”) as well as deliberate, which literally means “to weigh carefully” (with the de– emphasis).

In Spanish, you weigh literally — but in English, metaphorically.

You can see the l-b-r root in all of the words.

Colgar and Collocate

Colgar (Spanish for, “to hang”) comes from the Latin collocare — from which, unsurprisingly, we get the English, collocate. We can see the c-l-g mapping in colgar to the c-l-c root in the English and the original Latin. Hanging is really just a form of locating it!

Collocare itself comes from the prefix com– (“with”; like the Spanish con-) plus the root locare, “to place.” Thus, the word is a cousin of lugar (Spanish for “place”) and its English cousin… locate. Yes, we see the l-g map to the l-c, too. Another example of the c/g swap that we also see in colgar and collocate.

Cosecha and Collect

Cosecha (Spanish for “harvest”) comes from the Latin collectus, meaning, “collected.”

This makes sense: a harvest is, well, just collected.

Although the English collected is almost identical to the Latin, we can see how the Latin changed into the Spanish: the -ll- turned into an -s-, in a curious change. But — as is more common — the -ct- became a -ch- (think nocturnal/noche or octagon/ocho). Thus, the c-ll-ct of collect maps to the c-s-ch of cosecha.

Alcanzar and Calcium

Alcanzar (“to reach”, in the sense of “to achieve” such as, reaching a goal) comes from the Latin prefix in– with the Latin calx meaning, limestone. Limestone? Huh?

The word for Limestone became the word for achieving because, quite simply, you need to step on it to get a bit higher, to be a bit closer to the stars. Think of the word reach itself — there is a literal sense of holding your hand a bit higher, a bit further, so you can get to something. A bit like stepping on a stone. But there is the metaphorical sense of both words, reaching a goal.

From the root calx, we also get the English… calcium. Calcium is just another really hard substance that looks just like limestone.

You know another hard substance that looks like limestone? Chalk. And yes, chalk comes from calx, too!

Also from calx we get, calculate and calculus. We can never forget that little pebbles (of limestone) were initially used to count. That’s what the word itself reminds us.

Regalo and Gala, Gallant

Regalo, Spanish for “gift,” comes from the Old French galer (“to rejoice; make merry”), with a re- prefix added for emphasis.

From the same root we get the English gala, as well as gallant.

It makes sense: a gala is a big, merry, ball after all. Gallant is a bit more subtle: it meant, in old French, courteous — but earlier, it had originally meant, “amusing, entertaining,” from which we can see a clear relationship to making merry.

So, it is noteworthy, therefore, that good manners (being courteous) originally began as… being fun.

And all share the same g-l root to make the connection clear.

Obra – Maneuver

Opera obra spanish englishThe common Spanish word obra, for “a work” (in the sense of, “a work of art”) or “something done with effort” sounds pretty random at first. But if you think about it…

Obra comes the Latin opus, meaning “work” (in the same sense). From opus, we get various English words including:

  • Opus (obviously) – used in music to mean the same.
  • Opera – it was originally just a work of music!
  • Maneuver – also related to the Spanish mano, for hand: it is a work you create with your hands, literally!
  • Operation – yes, an operation is something you’ve created.

what is the etymological way to learn spanish?

Nerds love to pattern-match, to find commonalities among everything. Our approach to learning languages revolves (the same -volve- that is in “volver”, to “return”) around connecting the Spanish words to the related English words via their common etymologies – to find the linguistic patterns, because these patterns become easy triggers to remember what words mean. Want to know more? Email us and ask:

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For Nerds Learning Spanish via Etymologies